"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." -- Edmund Burke
We all can learn a lot from Adam Silver. Many people have already written about LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, his racist comments and his past history of racism. I won't bore you by repeating all the details. I choose to write about my new superhero, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
He may not physically look like one, but Silver is as potent as Captain America, Superman and others who have fought evil to protect "Truth, Justice and the American Way." He just fought the most insidious evil -- racism and hate -- by banning LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the NBA for life, forcing him to sell the team, and fining him $2.5 million. Arguably, he is more potent as a superhero than the comic book variety, because his strong condemnation of racist remarks comes from the highest position at the intersection of popular culture, business, media and wealth -- professional sports, which is usually more concerned with value than values. He sets an example for all leaders.
To understand how significant Silver's stand is, one needn't go further than many predominantly white social, religious or athletic groups throughout America, where racism resides just beneath the surface. In locker rooms, board rooms, religious sanctuaries, golf courses, backyards, dinner tables, and other venues, comments are still made that, "He must have gotten that job because he's black." I have been the recipient of these comments from prominent people -- bankers, lawyers, accountants, family members and the like. I've shrugged them off with a joke, and proclaimed that it's not true, but allowed the behavior to continue.
The danger of this kind of casual comment -- clearly protected as freedom of speech -- is that, like Sterling's comment to his girlfriend, it spreads from one person to the next as long as we stand by and listen. Whether because we're embarrassed by the statement or because we're intimidated by the person who's making it, we listen, stand by and do nothing. We may, as I have, say to another friend afterward, "Can you believe he said that?" But we don't draw a line in the sand and stop it.
Silver did. In essence he said, "No more; this is not who we are as Americans; this is not who we are as the NBA." His was a values statement that spoke not just to the core values of the NBA but to America's as well:
Sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principle of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multiethnic league. I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from an institution that has historically taken such a leadership role in matters of race relations and caused current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league.
Racism is evil because it spreads like a virus. Unchecked it affects person after person, wrapped around the mask of social convention and acceptance. At its core, it proclaims that someone else is lesser than we are, which defies America's foundational values:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Despite this vision of America, our country's past citizens and leaders -- at the same time proclaiming their allegiance to these values -- allowed slavery to persist for almost one hundred years after the Declaration of Independence. Looking back, many have asked how this could have happened in our country? My amateur answer: there weren't enough Adam Silvers to say no.
Since then, despite the civil rights movement, racism has also robbed millions of "the good life" of America because it deprives citizens of equal opportunity to make it, in part because it excludes them from the circles of influence and opportunity important to success. When someone like Donald Sterling says privately to his girlfriend that he doesn't want her to bring blacks to the games anymore, he creates a road block to mentorship, conversation, and potential opportunity. With the most recent Supreme Court decision upholding the University of Michigan's anti-affirmative action stance, this disparity of opportunity will likely continue. That is, unless more Adam Silvers say no.
Another reason why more of us have to follow Silver's lead to say no to even latent racism is that, without public condemnation, even affected people often look the other way. As reported by Phillip Morris in The Plain Dealer, respectability can be bought: "How is it that a billionaire slum landlord with a long public history of racial insensitivity, and at least one high-profile discrimination lawsuit managed to "pimp" a local branch of the NAACP to honor him with not one, but two, Lifetime Achievement Awards?"
This kind of award to undeserving people goes on all the time. Philanthropy, and the recognition that follows it, sometimes allows mean, insensitive, intolerant and racist people to look legitimate to others and to themselves. And their behavior continues.
Unless the Adam Silvers say no.
Preparing for this post, I spoke to several wonderful, ethical and values-centered people about Sterling and Silver. Most said that they have heard worse from their friends and that, in the scheme of possible offenses -- murder, rape, embezzlement, etc. -- what Sterling said in the privacy of his home wasn't so bad. Some denied that racism persists. Others dismissed Sterling as an out-of-touch bigot locked in a generational time-warp.
That's precisely why racism holds on within America. In the privacy of our homes, clubs, and offices -- and in the tradeoff of philanthropy and what we perceive as the greater good -- we ignore our values, dismiss and rationalize them, justify behavior, and substitute fakes. But I know from my dinner flatware that, while the look of sterling can be knocked off, silver is the real deal.
Thanks, Commissioner Silver for blasting your megaphone to protect our values!
Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.purpleamerica.us